Homeless Shelters Yet To Feel Pinch Of Government Cuts

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Frigid temperatures are forcing the homeless into Columbus shelters. While social service agencies are feeling the strain of state budget cutbacks, homeless shelters seem to be insulated from the cash crunch – at least for now.

If there’s any good news about people seeking shelter in Columbus, it’s that the numbers have not grown much over previous years. That’s according to Sara Loken, administrative director of the Community Shelter Board.

“We’re seeing very typical demand compared to prior years so far, which is about 7,500 people a year,” Loken says.

Last Sunday night, according to the shelter board, there were 536 men, 97 women and 105 families who received shelter from the winter weather. One homeless man was reluctant to speak to a reporter for fear he’d lose his spot at a downtown shelter.

“I lost my job and I was staying with a lady and the relationship wasn’t working out and we had a fall out so I came to the shelter until I could find housing and a job come available to me, he said. “I’ve been here for about 60 days. You can only stay here for about 90 days “

It’s a familiar story to people who run shelters like Faith Mission, Columbus’s largest provider of overnight housing for the homeless. On average a total of about 400 men and women are housed at Faith Mission’s three downtown shelters. But as temperatures decline, the shelters fill up says Vic Ward, Faith Mission’s Director of Operations.

“Every time we see a cold snap like this we do tend to see more people requiring shelter,” Ward says. “We expect it to continue because I think the weather is supposed to continue to be cold for at least for the next ten days to two weeks so we expect to see an increase in the number of people.”

The additional numbers, says Ward, put additional requirements on staff members.

“Managing 500 people that are in probably one of the most challenging points in their life, it takes a lot of work, a lot of support from staff, a lot of food, feeding that many people is quite an undertaking.” Faith Mission’s budget is about $6.5 million annually. Half comes from community, state and federal funds, the other half from charitable donations.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Ward says. “Our funding has stayed fairly consistent as far as state and local funding. And that’s important because that community funding is right around half of our budget. And so if we didn’t have that it would impact our ability to serve as many people as we do.”

But it could only be a matter of time before the homeless rate climbs due to cuts in government funding. The managing director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, Douglas Argue, says last year’s state cuts to social services have an indirect impact on the people seeking shelter.

“Medicaid, food stamps, heath care, those are the types of things that have been cut across the board in the state, that indirectly affect the services and how shelters are able to support homeless individuals,” Argue says. “So if you look at food pantries, their demand rates have skyrocketed because people who are homeless or just who are really struggling on the edge of poverty are reaching out to those sources that they’ve never reached out to before and it’s putting a tremendous strain on the community.”

The Community Shelter Board’s Sara Loken expects some loss in funding to shelter programs during fiscal year 2011-2012.

“We understand that some of the state funding will end; some of the state funding is not expected to be available. We are hopeful though that the federal stimulus dollars – which are the homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing programs – some of those dollars may be able to be used as somewhat of replacement funding,” Loken says.

“Housing is the last thing that people will let go of,” says Douglas Argue of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. “So we’re not seeing that skyrocket increase in homelessness that we expected due to the recession and the state budget cuts but that safety net that exists with state funds, certainly is wearing thin.”